Growing Buzz: Hyatt Regency Atlanta's Rooftop Garden and Bee Hives
Urban hotel sees the dynamic benefits of its rooftop sourcing.
“Going up there every day honestly is my moment of zen,” says Adam Sheff, executive sous chef, at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, where a thriving garden and apiary on the roof produce ingredients that highlight creative dishes at the property’s top-floor, rotating Polaris restaurant.
The rooftop garden reflects Hyatt Regency Atlanta’s commitment to sustainability, Executive Chef Thomas McKeown says. Plants are grown in organic soil with compost from the hotel’s food waste composting program. Beds are mulched with recycled rubber tires, and the plants are watered by a drip irrigation system using rain and condensation collected in re-purposed storage containers. The produce yield includes tomatoes, beans, peppers, and other vegetables, and a variety of fresh herbs.
Besides the sustainability of how the food is produced, the use of the space eliminates waste just by being there.
“Prior to using the roof for gardens and apiaries, it was just a rooftop—unused space,” McKeown says. “With the renovation and launch of our Polaris restaurant, they knew they needed something other than a plain roof but also a place to showcase the passion of the chefs and food. To have products grown on the same property really spoke to the Hyatt philosophy of Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served.”
About five years ago when Polaris was being renovated, the chef at the time started with eight raised beds. “That’s where the garden started,” says McKeown. “The apiary, which is now up to four hives, started in a totally opposite way.” In 2013, the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association contacted McKeown’s predecessor, Martin Pfefferkorn, to ask if the hotel could take on a small hive in need of rescue after a shipping company truck was in an accident.
“We worked with them to help set it up,” says McKeown. “Then, Georgia State University did the mural on the side of the building, which attracts guests from Polaris.”
The culinary team—including McKeown, Pastry Chef James Gallo, Sheff, and others— tend to the garden and apiary, calling themselves the Garden Club. “We now have 12 raised garden beds, growing tomatoes, raspberries, and enough mint to supply Polaris,” McKeown says. “We do peppers in the summer, which we made a hot sauce out of. We keep evolving it. It’s also an opportunity for our employees to be a part of the Garden Club. A lot of them live downtown with no access to space to grow, and they love gardening, so they get involved and help.” They have a system for self-watering the garden twice a day, so they don’t have to manually go up and water it.
The primary purpose of the garden and apiary are to provide vegetables and honey for Polaris and other F&B at the hotel—and as a visual reminder to dining guests that some of the food they are eating is sourced within view. “Polaris is a rotating restaurant that looks down onto the garden,” McKeown explains. “Our chefs go up and pick there daily for the restaurant’s open kitchen. When we interact with the guests, we tell them, ‘If you look, you can see where the honey’s coming from.’ We keep a frame of honey in our open kitchen; honey comes straight from the hive and is displayed.”
The rooftop is not a revenue source for events, but it’s used to impress VIPs (such as at an eclipse party last year) and groups touring the property. When the property hosts the Hyatt Good Taste Series every year (Hyatt’s brand-wide culinary competition), the unveiling of the mystery basket takes place there, and chefs pick from the garden. Ingress to the rooftop is via a back-of-house staircase that is “extremely steep,” with no elevator, so it’s difficult to traverse.
“We added a patio up there, so it’s a bit safer than standing right on the roof,” McKeown says. “But once you start adding food and beverages, you’re climbing the staircase. It’s a challenge, and that’s why we keep it for small, intimate events. Being a downtown property, we can only fit 40 to 50 people up there. And being a large convention hotel, it’s difficult to incorporate it on a daily basis.”
The biggest benefit from the garden is impressing customers, McKeown says. “Last year, we had a client reach out to us via social media, saying, ‘I’ve seen all your posts about the garden, and I’ve decided to choose your hotel because of it.’ They asked for a private tour while they were here to dine at Polaris. We know our guests are excited about what we are doing. They know the care in our approach to F&B is correct.”
McKeown says the hotel sees little cost savings benefit from growing on-property, because of the low quantity, but they continue to utilize the garden and apiary “because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s fun. As chefs, we get back to the roots of where our food comes from.”
Most of the garden production is for herbs, but this summer the Garden Club grew tomatoes. Last year saw okra and raspberries. And there are two types of mint, two types of oregano, rosemary, thyme, purple basil, sweet basil, and edible flowers, as well as flowers for pollen for bees—all utilized at Polaris.
The yield of mint is around 10 pounds a week, which for Polaris is “the perfect amount,” McKeown says. “Mint grows like wildfire; it’s such a weed, it grows quickly. During the summer months, every two or three days we get two to five pounds of tomatoes; Polaris is a small restaurant, so it keeps us up for that.”
A Natural Pairing
McKeown believes it’s a good idea to have the hives and garden in close proximity.
“In the inner city, having an area where the bees have access to some water and some pollen straightaway, even though they’re going to fly and get pollen elsewhere, just having access to our garden is cool, and it’s a cool display for our guests to see that,” he observes. “The bees are attracted to the garden, especially when it’s flowering. So, if you’re setting up a garden, it just makes sense to include a bee hive. There are many ways to do that. You could take some courses and set it up yourself. Most metro areas or states have a beekeeping association that hosts courses throughout the year. Also, there are many companies now. One is called Bee Downtown, from South Carolina with a location in Atlanta. They will set up hives for you for a fee, and they will teach your employees in your organization. They help monitor and keep the hives.”
The bees, McKeown reports, will go as far away as the Carter Center, the Botanical Gardens, local gardens, and Georgia Tech University. “So, as you look into the hive and go through the supers, you’ll see that each hunk is a different color, because the bees go through such a wide variety of pollen. We mix it altogether as a ‘wildflower honey,’ because with only four hives, you’re not getting enough of any one color to produce only that type of honey.”
The Garden Club was able to get about 120 pounds of honey last year, but has seen lower yield this year, due to a colony collapse, McKeown says. “It’s a major issue for bee hives right now. We will probably get half the honey this year, but we can rely on local farmers to substitute the rest.”
Among other culinary uses, the honey is showcased in the property’s own High Road Blue Dome ice cream. “We just love having the stuff,” says Sheff.
Veggies and Vibes
“It’s a real luxury in a downtown property to be able to go up on the roof and have a garden, let alone bee hives,” Sheff says. “It’s special for guests to be able to look out the window of Polaris and see where the vegetables come from.”
Just having even the relatively small volume of self-sourced ingredients at their fingertips gives the staff a sense of fulfillment, Sheff says.
“It’s an experience you don’t usually get, working in a kitchen. It doesn’t get any better quality sourcing than when you’re doing it yourself. You go through and pick what’s ripe. And if it’s going to be ripe tomorrow that’s okay. When it comes from a farm, once or twice a week, you get a little bit of a difference. (Here) you can pick everything when it’s perfect.” Sheff notes also that the garden is a teaching opportunity for less experienced cooks who come to the property.
And besides just peering out the window to see the garden, Polaris guests can see it on their plates. The restaurant does a vegetarian entrée that’s an assortment of garden vegetables—poached, roasted, or grilled—with seasonal sauces. “It just kind of looks like our garden,” says Sheff.